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Directed by Jeff Nichols
Produced by Sarah Green, Peter Saraf, Colin Firth, Marc Turtletaub, Ged Doherty, and Nancy Buirski
Written by Jeff Nichols
With: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Bill Camp, David Jensen, Terri Abney, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Winter-Lee Holland, Alano Miller, Michael Abbott Jr., and Michael Shannon
Cinematography: Adam Stone
Editing: Julie Monroe
Music: David Wingo
Runtime: 123 min
Release Date: 04 November 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

Loving tells the true story of the plaintiffs in the 1967 Supreme Court decision that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.  Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred Loving—childhood friends who fell in love, moved in together, and knowingly violated Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws when they decided to marry after Mildred got pregnant.  The film was inspired by Nancy Buirski's documentary The Loving Story (2011). But unlike other recent docudramas inspired by documentaries—features like Milk and Freeheld and TV movies like Grey Gardens and RKO 281—writer/director Jeff Nichols manages to create a film that adds up to far more than a Cliff’s notes history lesson or an opportunity for actors to sink their teeth into showboating roles. Nichols might seem an odd choice for this historical drama, given that he’s most well known for psychological thrillers often enhanced by supernatural undertones—like Take Shelter (2011) and Midnight Special (released earlier in 2016). But what the Arkansas native does best is tell stories set in the rural South, evoking its cultural and relational dynamics with grace and sensitivity. This makes him an ideal choice to tell this small but critically important chapter in American history.

Nichols avoids the pitfalls of cradle-to-grave biopics by focusing his picture on the years between the couple’s decision to marry and the end of their court case.  He also refuses to alter the truth to heighten the emotional intensity. First and foremost, he makes the film a character study. While, like most docudramas, the narrative is structured around the historical beats of the true story, the movie is more concerned with evoking a time and place and the feelings that arose from it—not just feelings about race, religion, and tradition, but also more visceral sensations like fear, paranoia, love, and loyalty.

Nichols and his usual cinematographer Adam Stone have shot all their films on 35mm, but that choice has never been more effective than in the case of this period piece. The production team, including production designer Chad Keith (Goodbye Solo, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Begin Again) and costume designer Erin Benach (Half Nelson, Blue Valentine, The Neon Demon), evoke the era and location without the museum quality artificiality that plagues so many larger-scale historical pictures.

A movie about a landmark legal case could easily culminate with a powerful courtroom drama climax, but since neither of the Lovings attended the Supreme Court hearings, Nichols doesn’t go down that road.  He tells the story of these two individuals strictly from their point of view, with the lawyers, judges, and law enforcement officers as peripheral players. The film stands out from other historical docudramas because of its subtle exploration of the dynamics within the marriage at its center.  Despite her status as a poor black woman in 1950s and ’60s, Virginia, Mildred Loving is the more active, courageous, and strategic half of the couple. Richard is clearly a good man, and deeply devoted to his family, but he’s also simple and docile, and not fully aware of the power that the forces aligned against him wield. 

In Richard, Edgerton creates a character rarely seen in movies. He’s a three-dimensional working class man of limited education who never comes off as ignorant. We experience his pleasures and frustrations by witnessing subtle behavior rather than through dialogue.  There is not a single cliché or misstep in his performance.  Negga shines even brighter discovering all the emotional colors to play in order to make Mildred a flesh and blood character rather than a conduit for socially conscious ideology or a simply drawn victim dragged around the screen to instill sympathy from an audience.  Negga’s eyes instill the loving and longing Mildred has for her husband and conveys her desire to create a safe place to raise her kids. Negga holds this delicate film together the way Mildred keeps her marriage and family together; she contains her emotions yet always astutely expresses what she wants.

Both actors give the kind of understated performances that usually go unrewarded during awards season in favor of more bombastic, showy star turns. If there’s any justice in the new crop of Academy voters, both these actors will get the recognition they deserve. This exquisitely restrained movie showcases two of the year’s most finely drawn performances in a story of about quiet people who changed the country forever.